The first floor of South Block, where the defence minister, defence secretary, and a host of senior officials work, froze for a few hours in the last week of June. A 35-year-old homemaker and army officer’s wife had been murdered inside the Delhi cantonment. Was she killed by an outsider? And, if so, what kind of blame would Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman have to take? After all, Sitharaman had ordered and supervised opening up cantonment roads, much to the anger of veterans and families of serving officers.
The veterans and the families had taken to social media soon after orders to open up the roads were issued, accusing the minister and the bureaucracy of having “vested interests”.
Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had to face flak for the decision. (Photo: PTI/file)
After the murder, as phones worked overtime and messages from secure lines flashed all across, the sequence of events became clear. The woman was allegedly killed by an Army officer. While that was shocking in itself, the crime couldn’t be directly linked to the opening up cantonment roads.
Across India, there are 62 cantonments and they collectively occupy nearly 1.57 lakh acres of land — about 635 sqkm. The MoD has 17.57 lakh acres of land — about 7,110 sqkm, of which a little over 10,000 acres is encroached upon. To give perspective, Goa is spread over 3,702 sqkm and Chandigarh over 114 sqkm.
Cantonments are distinct from military stations. As the name indicates, military stations are operational in nature and are in complete control of the military. Cantonments, however, have an elected administrative body guided by the Cantonment Act 2006, which replaced the Cantonment Act of 1924.
Cantonments go back to 1600s and to the East India Company. The first cantonment came up in Barrackpore, set up by Robert Clive in 1765. It is perhaps from “barracks” that the name “Barrackpore” comes. From Bengal, as the East India Company went west towards Malawa to control the opium production there, new cantonments started coming up. Similar is the case with Sindh. Some cities and settlements pre-date cantonments and in some cases, settlements have sprung up around cantonments.
Across the country, there are about 850 cantonment roads that are out-of-bonds for civilians. Many or most of these have been closed without due process, as prescribed in the Cantonment Act of 2006. Of this, the closure of about 120-odd roads was reviewed by the MoD and around 80 roads opened up.
Although the decision was taken in consultation with the Chief of Army Staff, General Bipin Rawat, and other senior members of the army brass, senior commanders have refused to open up 17 roads. In fact, in addition to these 850, the army wants another 80 roads to be closed.
Cantonments and military stations have faced attacks even with the roads closed off. (Photo: PTI/file)
Importantly, local commanders have refused to answer queries on why 17 roads remain closed despite orders. This not only amounts to disregarding orders of the MoD, but also of the Chief of Army Staff. The fact that senior commanders have refused to acknowledge queries from the political leadership has raised eyebrows.
Opening up cantonment roads for civilians has turned out to be a bitter and acrimonious issue. Lines are sharply drawn. On one side there are the veterans and the families of serving soldiers, pointing out security issues. On the other is the Ministry of Defence, which has received petitions from Members of Parliament and civilian citizens who cite difficulties and harassment in their daily life.
Security indeed is a concern, as is the safety of soldiers’ families. Indeed, of the numerous terror attacks in India, several have been directed on cantonments and military stations. But these have happened even when the cantonment roads were closed and when the borders are heavily guarded.
Military installations are high-value targets, but so are several others across India. Does it mean we close down everything? Drawing a linear link between opening cantonment roads with security is flaky. Such arguments show that the military has little faith in other arms of the state — the police and the numerous security establishments. Surely, it is no one’s case that the various arms of the state are incapable of protecting the military and their families? This stand-off, acrimony, and air of suspicion are unhealthy.
The Indian Armed Forces and the defence ministry must take a mature approach. And the prerequisite for that is the knowledge and acknowledgement that neither is against the other.